Another meaningless victory in 'liberated' Iraq

The siege confirmed what many of us have thought: the whole venture is doomed

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In a narrow, almost meaningless sense, American troops have won the battle of Fallujah. But in so doing they have proved beyond doubt that they cannot win the war in Iraq. In any case, what is victory in Fallujah? The enemy had no headquarters that could be dismantled nor commanding officer who could have signed a surrender document. Take Samarra, a city that was also "liberated". As soon as the American forces turned their attention elsewhere, the insurgents returned. Two weeks ago, they carried out bombings and mortar attacks that left at least 30 dead. There is no lasting victory to be had in Iraq, only death and suffering.

In a narrow, almost meaningless sense, American troops have won the battle of Fallujah. But in so doing they have proved beyond doubt that they cannot win the war in Iraq. In any case, what is victory in Fallujah? The enemy had no headquarters that could be dismantled nor commanding officer who could have signed a surrender document. Take Samarra, a city that was also "liberated". As soon as the American forces turned their attention elsewhere, the insurgents returned. Two weeks ago, they carried out bombings and mortar attacks that left at least 30 dead. There is no lasting victory to be had in Iraq, only death and suffering.

US commanders say their goals now in Fallujah are to install an Iraqi security force, rebuild the city to win back the confidence of the residents, and persuade the Sunni Arabs, who were Saddam Hussein's base of support, to lay down their arms and take part in a legitimate political process. If only.

The performance of the Iraqi army and police force is consistently poor. Iraqi troops did no heavy fighting in Fallujah. They followed the Americans in and searched buildings that had already been cleared. They stood around in their spotless brown uniforms, disoriented. As for the newly trained Iraqi police, they are more or less ineffective. The other day, for instance, insurgents raided seven of Mosul's 33 police stations. They were able to make off with 40 police vehicles, weapons, handheld radios, computers, telephones, police uniforms and body armour.

As for rebuilding, the Coalition has thus far proved unable to carry out any worthwhile restoration of Iraq's infrastructure. Nor does it appear impressive to knock down Fallujah one day and then send in reconstruction teams to put it all back together a few weeks later. Imagine that some foreign force had left a British city - say York, or Perth or Swansea - looking like Fallujah and said to the citizens "don't worry we'll come back later and restore it to what it was". There would be no comfort to be had from that and we would all say, "but you cannot really bring back the city we knew, only a lifeless approximation".

The fighting has severely damaged numerous mosques. Officially, soldiers cannot attack mosques unless they are being used by insurgents for hostile purposes. Which of course they have been. Here is an American newspaper report from Fallujah: "Neutralising the threat from the green-domed mosque looked almost effortless. Marines in the dusty warrens of Fallujah had been taking fire from one of its twin minarets. They called in air support. A 500-pound bomb slammed into a blue-tiled tower, obliterating part of the Khulafa al-Rashid mosque, the city's most celebrated religious building." You can always rebuild a mosque, I suppose. But again imagine this happening in our country: "Sorry about York Minster; it was being used by British extremists to shoot at us. But don't worry, we will quickly make it as good as new."

This is the context in which the politics of subduing Fallujah, a Sunni city, should be seen. The Sunni Arabs have always controlled Iraq even though they have comprised only one fifth of the population. In any free election the Iraqi Shias would win a majority of seats in parliament and form a permanent Shia-dominated government. The attack on Fallujah is supposed to tell the Sunnis that they have no alternative but to accept the role of a minority in a democratic Iraqi state, that the ballot must prevail over the bullet.

But we have already had the answer. Substantial numbers of Sunni militants left town early and went to attack American forces elsewhere. The cities they chose were Mosul and Ramadi. In Mosul 500 insurgents attacked security forces. This was a far larger body of fighters than American and Iraqi intelligence had predicted. As a result the US command had to recall a battalion from the fighting in Fallujah. At the same time the Iraqi government ordered up four battalions of national guardsmen.

The story is the same in Ramadi, a city of 400,000 on the Euphrates, 30 miles west of Fallujah. Once again additional US troops had to be summoned from Fallujah.

As an American commander on the spot told reporters: "Ramadi is really out of control, and another infantry battalion is needed in the city." Up to 150 foreign fighters are here, he said. "We've seen an increase in their proficiency and their will to fight." Quite so. No sooner do the American forces impose their will in one place than another city escapes their control. It's an impossible task however you look at it. Moreover, the methods required to subdue rebellious cities are themselves counter-productive. Going back to my previous example, would the inhabitants of York, Perth and Swansea return after the fighting, well pleased that they had avoided death, even though their homes may have been blown to smithereens? I don't think so.

The Coalition cannot prevail in Iraq. Its aims will not be realised. Unexpectedly the siege of Fallujah confirmed what many of us have thought since the beginning: the whole venture is doomed.

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